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Most of us would probably agree that a workplace with chronically high stress is NOT a great place to work. While a certain amount of stress is good because it moves people to action, severe or long-term stress creates a negative work environment. Why should leaders care about creating a low-stress, positive workplace? Because the evidence indicates that organizations with a healthy culture enjoy superior performance. For example, the "Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For" outperformed the general market by almost double between 1998 and 2015. While there are many factors that contribute to making a company a great place to work, one way for leaders to achieve that goal is to understand the source and level of employee stress and take action to help them find the right balance.    

First, let’s explore the different types of stress. The term "eustress" describes normal or "good stress" where our pulse increases and we experience a hormone change, but there is no fear or perception of threat. Eustress creates excitement or anticipation in the face of a challenge and generally leads to heightened performance.  

Short-term or "acute stress" is also known as the "fight-or-flight response". This also falls into the category of "good stress" because our bodies are designed with this physiological mechanism which seeks to ensure our survival in the face of a real or imagined threat. Once the crisis is averted, we return fairly quickly to the pre-stress state with no major negative effects.  

However, long-term or "chronic stress" occurs when we continually face stressors that feel inescapable. Our bodies are NOT designed to manage this condition and it can have a serious negative impact on our mental, emotional, and physical health. What causes this type of severe, chronic stress in the workplace? Usually it is a mismatch between the requirements of the job versus the needs, resources or capabilities of the employee.

A helpful approach for managers is to understand the following Seven Ways Stress Manifests in an organization, and then use this knowledge to proactively assess their situation and take Leadership Actions to help employees manage their stress and improve performance.

1) DEMAND – Business requirements exceed employees’ ability to cope, either due to excessive workloads, poorly designed jobs, or a misalignment of skills and talents.

Leadership Actions: Clarify priorities and expectations; re-examine job responsibilities; re-evaluate employee capabilities, and provide additional training or assist with job change.

2) EFFORT/REWARD BALANCE – The level of effort is not met with the expected level of reward from the employee’s perspective. 

Leadership Actions: Manage expectations in advance on what constitutes average versus extraordinary effort and results; tailor rewards to individual needs including public recognition, additional training or growth assignments, in addition to monetary awards.

3) CONTROL – Employees have a sense of powerlessness or lack of control, especially relative to their ability to fulfill their responsibilities. 

Leadership Actions: Explore opportunities to empower employees by sharing more information and expanding decision-making authority within agreed boundaries.

4) ORGANIZATION CHANGE – Changes in people, structure, processes or technology occur, creating both uncertainty and opportunities.

Leadership Actions: Explain the reason for change and then communicate, communicate, communicate – honestly, openly and in a timely fashion. 

5) MANAGER/SUPERVISOR – Employees perceive that a direct supervisor is creating undue pressure or challenges that exceed reasonable expectations. 

Leadership Actions: Ensure all employees are being treated fairly and equitably; understand the behavioral style and capabilities of each employee, ask questions and actively listen, then adapt management approach accordingly. 

6) SOCIAL SUPPORT – Working relationships are poor, support from co-workers and/or managers is inconsistent, or unacceptable behavior is tolerated

Leadership Actions: Clarify expectations and consistently hold all employees accountable; proactively build a team-based work structure and assess performance relative to group as well as individual goals; provide conflict resolution training and resources.

7) JOB SECURITY – Fear of job loss, concern on job performance, or frustration with lack of promotion or advancement leads to employee worries about their ability to provide for themselves and their families.

Leadership Actions: Speak regularly with employees about their performance (not just during an annual review process); provide opportunities for training and growth; address any rumors of layoffs or shutdowns quickly and honestly.

Experience shows that a highly-stressed workforce correlates with sub-optimal performance. If you are a business owner or leader who is looking for ways to energize your organization, please contact us. We’d love to hear from you and to help you to learn more about how to manage stress appropriately in your workplace. Thanks to TTI Success Insights and to Diane Janovsky, Strategic Partner at HPISolutions for her insights.